Pass the Hat


Singer, pianist, accordion pumper, harmonica blower, and songwriter Steven Evans Willis often had to pass the hat to make ends meet during his early days of playing rock ‘n’ roll and country music in Arizona bars along Route 66/Interstate 40. On the self-penned title track of his fifth CD, however, the 59-year-old musician, now based in Oakland, California, tells his woman, “I’m gonna keep my cash, gonna let you pass the hat,” while holding the door for her as she walks out. He supports his impassioned wails with solid blues piano in the old-time tradition of Big Maceo Merriweather. Elvin Bishop answers with acerbic guitar obligatos and a stinging solo. Willis has been a member of Bishop’s band for the past 11 years, following stints with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and legendary New Orleans funk drummer Zigaboo Modeliste. Bishop is featured on three tracks of Pass the Hat, and his band’s superb second guitarist, Bob Welsh, plays on five more. Also from the Bishop band are drummer Bobby Cochran, upright bassist Ruth Davies, and trombonist Ed Earley. The only players not associated with Bishop are saxophonist Nancy Wright and guitarist Steve Gannon. Gannon, an Englishman long based in Oakland, is featured on the slow blues “Cancer.” “It seems like half the people I know have cancer or are dying from it or died from it,”Willis says of his reason for writing the slow, mournful blues song. Gannon himself is currently battling lung cancer. Willis’ compositions, as well as the three non-originals on Pass the Hat, reflect his amazing command of many of the main strains of American roots music, including blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll, and gospel. The blues “Black Widow” showcases his New Orleans rumba-boogie piano playing, as does his clever reshaping of the spiritual “John the Revelator” as “John the Regulator.” He recalls his formative years in Flagstaff, Arizona – where a Monday night blues jam session he launched in 1983 at Charley’s Pub & Grill continues 19 years after he relocated to Oakland – with the bouncing “I-40.” His ballad “Black Hills Gold” is especially heartfelt, as is his soulful reading of the oft-recorded “Release Me.” With his Louisiana-style piano underpinning, Willis gives the tune a refreshing swamp-pop treatment quite unlike earlier hit versions by Ray Price, Esther Phillips, and Engelbert Humperdinck. He salutes Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown with the peg-leg shuffling (as Bobby Cochran calls the beat Willis plays on snare drum) “Boogie Rambler.” Willis got the idea to do the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” as an instrumental in order to accompany a short story about forest-firefighters (”Pyromaniac”) written by his wife, Ann Cummins. Although wonderfully eclectic, Willis’ take on American music is firmly grounded in the blues, of which he says, “It was the thing that made the most sense out of anything I heard.” --Lee Hildebrand (contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle and Living Blues)

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    I-40 4:01